TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
"Football Genius" is former NFL player-turned-author Tim Green's first book for young people. Since we're a week away from the Super Bowl, and since we New Jerseyites have a dog in this fight, let me take this opportunity to say, GO GIANTS! Now back to our regularly scheduled review.
The story here is pretty simple. Troy is a Georgia sixth grader who never knew his real dad. He's a second-string quarterback for the Tigers, even though he has gobs more talent than Jamie Renfro, the starter. See, Jamie's dad is the coach, and both father and son are complete jerks and bullies. To show Jamie up, Troy steals an official Atlanta Falcons football from Seth Holloway, an NFL veteran who lives in a nearby gated community. Conveniently, Troy's single mom has just landed a job with the Falcons public relations staff, so it's easy enough for her to arrange a meeting with Seth at which Troy is to apologize for his actions and return the ball.
Mom also snags some field passes from Mr. Langan, the kindly owner of the Falcons. So what goes wrong? Well, Troy has this uncanny ability to predict exactly what the next play in a football game will be. He labels it "ESP," but it's more like his brain is acting as a supercomputer, calculating all the possible options based on field position, past plays, the players involved, etc. Troy is incredibly normal in all other aspects of life, but the football genius talent (title alert!) is something else. So when Troy finds himself on the sidelines for the big Falcons / Cowboys game, where he knows without a doubt what play the Cowboys offense will run, he storms up to defensive coordinator and all-around bad guy Coach Krock to try to warn him. Thus follows an extended bit in which Troy lands in tons of trouble, nearly gets his mom fired, and then continually pesters mom, Seth, and the entire Falcons establishment to let him help the struggling team by using his football genius talent for their benefit.
First off, I should state there are plenty of good things to say in this book's favor. Overall, it is a very sweet and wholesome book. It's refreshing to see honesty and morality portrayed in a plain, non-judgmental way. Troy knows stealing, trespassing, and lying are wrong, and he believably struggles with his conscience to do what is right, all without any "fire and brimstone" overtones. The friendship between Troy, the girl kicker / punter Tate, and the big lineman Nathan is nicely portrayed, too, as these kids seem like real, genuine friends who stand up for each other in ways both ordinary and heroic. They seem like the kind of friends any 12 year old would love to have. The kids are also resourceful, devising intelligent, often complicated schemes to get Troy's mom, Seth, and the Falcons to believe in Troy.
On the downside, you'll need to suspend a lot of belief to buy into "Football Genius." I'm willing to buy that a kid can read plays and predict football action better than professionals. But that that same kid would be so pivotal to an NFL team's success is a bigger leap of faith, one which the novel never fully justifies. There are some gaping holes in the plot (um, don't the Falcons ever play away games?) that you'll have to overlook to enjoy this novel. Even beyond all this, some of the characters are stock villains at best. The bad guys — Krock, Jamie, Coach Renfro — are so one-note, so unrelentingly evil, that you half expect them to start twirling a mustache or something. It really is that hammy and overdone.
I think there are better sports books out there for young middle schoolers, particularly Mike Lupica's "Travel Team" books (which also feature a sports underdog and a great boy / girl friendship) and John Feinstein's sports / mystery mash-ups "Last Shot," "Vanishing Act," and "Cover Up" (all of which present smart, capable kids entering the professional sports world in much more believable ways). Still, there's nothing especially wrong with "Football Genius," which is an easy-to-read novel just about bursting with pages and pages of on-field football action. It's incredibly clean and inoffensive as well, making it a good choice for young sports lovers, both boys and girls.